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May 22, 2018

Can the PPP go back to its roots?


May 22, 2018

The right-wing Urdu media has always discriminated against the PPP. Retrogressive elements within the media ran malicious campaigns against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the party’s founder. The slanderous campaign against Bhutto haunted his family members even after he was executed. Before the polls of 1988, some religious magazines ran fabricated stories against Begum Nusrat Bhutto and hurled allegations at Benazir Bhutto.

There is no denying the fact that the PPP’s founder employed sledgehammer tactics to stifle the voice of dissent while showing a strong inclination towards leftist elements. He also relied on the opportunistic feudal elements. But such sycophants jumped out of the sinking ship as soon as they realised that his days were numbered.

While, at times, Bhutto was vindictive, that shouldn’t overshadow the positive work he did. Bhutto has been accused of destroying the country’s economy. Capitalists like Nawaz Sharif and many of our Harvard-educated economists are of the view that the populist leader pushed the country towards economic chaos. But this perception flies in the face of facts.

Even the CIA, which must have been euphoric over the coup that toppled Bhutto’s government, admitted that his regime had made impressive economic gains. In an intelligence memorandum issued in July 1973, the agency admitted that Bhutto had inherited an economy in the midst of an industrial recession, which was triggered by policies adopted in the 1960s.

The per capita GDP, which had increased at an average annual rate of almost four percent between 1962 and 1970, declined in 1971. Investment as a share of GDP declined from 18 percent in the early 1960s to about 14 percent between 1965 and 1970.

During this period, foreign exchange outlays for defence accounted for at least 20 percent of foreign exchange reserve earnings. The country had already lost a large market for the domestic consumption of goods after the separation of East Pakistan.

As per the memorandum, the economy had made impressive strides during Bhutto’s first 18 months in power. The real growth in GDP was 6.5 percent. The government raised wheat production to record levels, attained partial recovery from the industrial recession, and expanded exports. In addition, foreign exchange reserves had also tripled by June 1973.

No state-owned entities incurred heavy losses. Despite the surge in oil prices in the 1970s, the national carrier witnessed phenomenal growth. Its passenger traffic increased 224 percent between 1972 and 1980 while revenue skyrocketed to 926 percent. Crony capitalism pushed state-owned concerns towards destruction. Benazir Bhutto inherited a crisis-ridden country, but wasn’t given enough time to work on her economic agenda.

It may be fair to assert that the PPP has always inherited a crisis-ridden country. In 1988, it formed the first democratic government after a long spell of dictatorship. In 2008, the party assumed power after its leader was assassinated, plunging the country into chaos at a time when militants had already unleashed a reign of terror. It is also fair to say that the PPP-led government liberated Swat from the pernicious tentacles of the Taliban and carried out military operations in the tribal areas as well. The party also deserves appreciation for the landmark legislation that enhanced the powers of the provinces.

But can all this be used to conceal what many see as gross mismanagement and rampant corruption by the Zardari government at the centre between 2008 and 2013, and the PPP government in Sindh over the last 10 years? The PPP-led Sindh government has remained more or less incompetent, barring a few initiatives taken by the Sindh government.

Instead of launching housing schemes, PPP leaders have been accused of providing state land to construction companies and housing societies at abysmally low prices. The provincial government has also failed to improve Sindh’s health and education sectors.

The party may try to raise slogans of victimhood to garner support for the upcoming polls, but the stigma of corruption and mismanagement cannot be washed away through sheer rhetoric. The PPP needs to do some soul-searching. The graft allegations haven’t come out of the blue. If such allegations were meant to defame the party, then PPP stalwarts like Raza Rabbani, Farhatullah Babar and Taj Haider would also have been accused of corruption. The party needs to admit that corruption is one of the factors that have eroded its popularity.

The party needs to investigate the claims that jobs were sold during the last 10 years of the PPP’s rule in Sindh. One way to take corrupt elements within the PPP to task is to inquire about the wealth of party parliamentarians and leaders before the 2008 polls.

The PPP has been known for standing up to non-democratic powers. But its ’deals’ during the Senate polls will not go unnoticed by the people. The party’s decision to surrender to the powerful has dented its reputation, which was already fraught with corruption allegations. As if this wasn’t enough, former president Zardari is still exploring ways to hobnob with corrupt electables and form the next government by hook or by crook.

The PPP, which claims to be the bastion of the rights of the toiling masses, needs to clarify a few things. How many of its parliamentarians are from the bottom layers of social stratification? How many representatives of labourers, peasants and other marginalised groups were awarded party tickets during the last two general elections? Can the central committee of the party formulate any policy that is contrary to Zardari’s wishes?

So, Bilawal is faced with a huge dilemma. He wants to revive the party to what it used to be under his grandfather, and work towards emancipating peasants. Ironically, Bilawal is accompanied by the feudal elite that loathes the very idea of such emancipation. He wants his party to work against capitalists but pays little attention to the fact that almost all of his father’s cronies are feeding off the labour of the masses. Bilawal wants to rid Sindh of crimes against women, but ignores the powerful tribal leaders who preside over jirgas and issue death sentences to couples who have married of their own volition.

When it comes to infrastructural development, Sindh lags behind Punjab. The PPP claims to have spent more than Rs2,000 billion on health, education and annual development schemes. How much development can an independent observer see in Sindh, except for a few roads in Nawab Shah and some projects in Khairpur?

The budget speech of FY 2010-2011 stated that 43,000 acres of land were distributed among landless farmers while the second phase of allotting 53,000 acres had commenced. Another allotment worth 50,000 acres of land for poor peasants was promised. Could the party investigate if this land was actually given to peasants? The surge in migration from rural Sindh to Karachi indicates that these land reforms were either not carried out or the scale of distribution wasn’t as massive as the claims made by the government.

Many believe that if the party wants to be popular again, it must get rid of the corrupt feudal elite that seem to be holding sway over its affairs. It must increase the representation of workers, peasants and women in the party’s decision-making bodies. If it is interested in championing the cause of the people, at least 70 percent of party tickets in the upcoming polls should be awarded to workers from the bottom layer of social stratification rather than the feudal elite and business tycoons.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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